Q: What would you say now to someone who thinks they might have had some kind of unrecalled sexual trauma in childhood?
A: It would depend on the age of that person. Honestly, if the person is my age and has gotten along fine without feeling tortured by some memory that is lurking or some relationship that feels poisonous, if you’ve lived 60 years without knowing, it probably won’t kill you not to know.
I know that’s heresy in the psychotherapeutic world, but we had a very religious attitude about therapy for a few decades. It has proven to be useful but not to be a magic bullet. If you are young and really feeling some kind of pain with this, I suggest very carefully selecting a therapist, doing some reading and talking to your family in a very gentle way.
I wish some [therapist] had said to me, “You’re making this up. This cannot be real.” One thing a therapist did say was that these allegations do not arise in healthy families, whether or not this particular thing happened, something was very wrong. I would say to people, if you are questioning like that, there’s probably a whole bunch of other stuff that’s worth taking a look at. (More on Time.com: All TIME 100 Best Novels)
Q: How can we prevent this kind of extremist response from happening again?
A: I have thought long and hard about this. For myself, I have two little tricks. One is that if I’m arguing with someone and I find myself with veins popping out on my neck and hands clenched and my stomach in knots, that’s my first clue that I’m not really sure of what I’m saying. There is some insecurity there. The second clue is asking myself, “If everyone on earth told me this could not possibly be true, would I still believe it?”
Q: The other part of that is also to look at the science: therapists were asserting things about memory and dreams that simply weren’t supported by the data.
A: Exactly. [Also], the method that I learned as journalist is the “follow the money” line of argument. Sometimes that’s dollars, sometimes it’s about who stands to benefit. If you’re kind of broke and your muffler is loose, you’re not going to fix it because they’re going to tell you that 80 things need to be fixed. Some things really need fixing, and some do not.
[Nobody] goes to a therapist and says something seems to be terribly wrong and the therapist says, “No, actually everything is fine.” They would be out of business and, usually, they would be wrong.
Q: It seems that critical thinking is also key to avoiding the kind of hysteria that developed around child sexual abuse. I remember, at the time, hearing about alleged abuses in day-care centers and wondering how it could be possible that Satanic orgies were being held and people were putting peanut butter down kids’ pants, but no parent ever came in unexpectedly and caught them at it or found peanut butter on a child’s underwear.
A: We are bred to be a nation of sheep. You have to ask hard questions because no one else will ask them of you and no one else can answer for you.
[Throughout the book you’ll see that] I kept begging one therapist after another, “Just tell me if it’s true.” You don’t feel good if you’re wondering if it’s true. When I settled in comfortably and said, “I know that my father molested me,” I felt better, even when the certainty I’d settled into was horrible. I felt better when I convinced myself of that lie than I had felt for five years previously. When I was quote-unquote “open minded,” it felt awful.
Q: It must have been very difficult to realize you were wrong, apologize to your father and then write about it.
A: It didn’t exactly make me feel good about myself. When I was thinking about doing the book, I thought, [sarcastically], “Way to really build self-esteem and your reputation as a reliable narrator as a journalist.” I mean, the title of the book is My Lie.
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